“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
John A. Shedd (1928) Salt From My Attic (a book of adages)
PRO-RES is an advocacy project with two phases. The first phase was to build a framework guiding ethics and integrity across all non-medical sciences based on secondary research and consultations with a range of stakeholders. This was done via workshops and is ongoing via the website. It is vital as the project progresses that the Framework is not seen as something handed down from above. It must not be a fait accompli and may never be seen as ‘completed’– we are operating in a fluid field which needs to respond to societal change and technological innovation.
The second phase, perhaps the more challenging, we are moving toward with the mid-term conference as a marker. During this phase, we need to find ways to encourage policymakers and their advisors to make use of ‘good’ research evidence.
We are not so much concerned with the substantive content of research, rather with how it is done and used – its methods, motives and impact. Our interest lies in promoting ‘good’ research. First and foremost, we are interested in it being morally ‘good’ and therefore it must be also, necessarily, methodologically good. In an ethical sense too, our impact must be more about benefits than harms. Good research should benefit society, communities and individuals and, as far as possible, minimize the harms that can come out of research – both while it is being conducted and subsequently when its findings are being applied.
For this to work we need scientists and researchers to uphold certain fundamental values and follow morally accepted principles in their work. In similar vein, we need the users of research, such as policymakers and their scientific advisors, to seek out the best research, the most reliable evidence, the evidence that is fit for purpose – and not to try to direct outcomes solely for their own political or ideological purposes. We hope that policies can be designed and implemented on the basis of the most robust and reliable evidence – that is, the outcomes of independent, unbiased (truth-seeking) research.
To help science in the search for unbiased research we need support on three levels:
1) The individual (virtuous) scientist who does not contemplate, condone or participate in corrupt research practices.
2) A professional culture for science and researchers that rewards good conduct and finds appropriate mechanisms to sanction misconduct.
3) When these two levels are not enough – when they don’t prevent corrupt or overly risky practices – we need regulation/legislation that punishes bad practice and possibly helps to reward good practices.
The Framework is the ‘ship in harbour’. Who could argue with the values, principles and standards we are supporting and which are further supported by the whole range of EU-funded projects related to responsible research and innovation, and to the promotion of scientific integrity? The dangers only arise when those fundamentals are to be applied in practice. Some ‘good’ research evidence may be resisted when it fails to match other, more ideological and/or political, ideals. Other good evidence will be side-lined if it appears to be difficult to implement. But evidence should never be ruled out merely because it fails to match some ‘received opinion’.
We will need help to accomplish this task – so please engage with us and help ensure the use of evidence-based policy and challenge the tendency to ‘policy-biased’ evidence.